Dr. Bernard I. Finel has an important and provocative article in AFJ challenging the current operational primacy of COIN in Afghanistan and Iraq that has stirred a great deal of backchannel and listserv discussion, but not nearly enough open commentary in the blogosphere. I checked an unscientific sampling of COIN blogs and did not find much discussion of Dr. Finel’s article, except one comment at SWJ Blog by respected SWC member Ken White, who called it a “well stated and logical essay” with a “valid premise”. Finel’s article merits greater attention and debate:
The U.S. military is a dominant fighting force, capable of rapid global power projection and able to defeat state adversaries quickly and at relatively low cost in American lives and treasure. Unfortunately, American leaders are increasingly trying to transform this force into one optimized for counterinsurgency missions and long-term military occupations. A fundamental problem with the adoption of population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine as an organizing principle for American military operations is that it systematically fails to take advantage of the real strengths of the U.S. military.
It is true that not all political goals are achievable through the use of conventional military capabilities. However, “victory” in war is not dichotomous, and the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan – often seen as proving the necessity for COIN-capable forces as well as a commitment to nation-building – demonstrate in reality that the vast majority of goals can be accomplished through quick, decisive military operations. Not all political goals are achievable this way, but most are and those that cannot be achieved through conventional operations likely cannot be achieved by the application of even the most sophisticated counterinsurgency doctrine either.
As a consequence, I believe the U.S. should adopt a national military strategy that heavily leverages the core capability to break states and target and destroy fixed assets, iteratively if necessary. Such a strategy – which might loosely be termed “repetitive raiding” – could defeat and disrupt most potential threats the U.S. faces. While America’s adversaries may prefer to engage the U.S. using asymmetric strategies, there is no reason that the U.S. should agree to fight on these terms.
This essay argues the U.S. can largely defeat threats using conventional capabilities, and that what encourages a desire to engage in long-drawn-out asymmetric conflicts is not the elimination of threats, but rather the unattainable goal of trying to prevent threats from emerging in the future.
Read the rest here.
First, I have some sympathy with Finel’s position that COIN operations generally do not maximize the utility of America’s military comparative advantages and extended nation-building via COIN is a costly investment. Dr. Finel is correct here. I’m certain even David Kilcullen would agree with Finel that America trying to do heavy footprint, pop-centric COIN everywhere and anywhere is unwise and too expensive. We need to sync our military might with our political will as well as our wallet.
Secondly, I have no problem with punitive expeditions, or what Finel euphemistically calls “repetitive raiding”. Such “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead!” tinged operations are as old as warfare itself and a state’s demonstrated willingness to carry them out serves a useful deterrent purpose. William Lind has been advocating a combination of punitive expeditions and containment/isolation for years in his writings on 4GW. This is an option we should definitely consider first in a cost-benefit fashion prior to committing sizable deployments of troops to a long-term nation building adventure.
That said, exchanging one operatiuonal emphasis (COIN) for another (punitive expeditions) does not change our strategic situation much, it just represents a different kind of hammer, a mallet instead of a ball peen. Under Finel’s prospective doctrine, the US military will be greenlighted to fight only the wars it likes best because some foes are more targetable than others, resembling a drunkard looking for his car keys under a street lamp because that is where the light is good. If we can just convince all of our enemies to oblige us by becoming states with flags, armies and capitols, then I’d say junk COIN.
Unfortunately, they won’t and the days when only states can cause damage are long past. A well-trained, paramilitary, insurgency can wreck one hell of a lot of damage, especially when it is striking first with the element of surprise. This is why, even in the state-centric days of the Cold War, that the Soviet Union invested heavily in SPETSNAZ, OSNAZ and various GRU sleeper units to wreck havoc behind NATO lines with terrorism, assassination and sabotage in the run up to WWIII. The Soviets expected at least major tactical, if not strategic, results from such units.
Operational tools are not strategies. This was my prior complaint about COIN being oversold in Afghanistan and punitive expeditions likewise do not fit every geopolitical situation and work best with particular circumstances. The fact is, where we have a real national interest in friendly states with legitimate governments beating back insurgents, COIN is a better choice. Many problems will require a response that is altogether different from either. The enemy, when there is an enemy, has to be dealt with as they are and not as we’d really like them to be in our ten year procurement schedule. We have to select the tools that best fit operational conditions, our policy objectives and our resources.
Strategy must conform to reality and not the reverse.